The Senate resoundingly defeated a proposal from the Secretary of State’s Office that would have advanced the primary election date by three weeks.
The vote, 29-0, was something of an embarrassment for Jim Condos, the Secretary of State, who advocated for the change last week. Condos said he wasn’t aware of the abrupt about-face until after the fact. “It’s not my defeat; it’s the citizens of Vermont’s defeat,” he said.
Even the members of the committee who incorporated Condos’ proposal in the miscellaneous elections bill, S.86, which would have moved up the primary to early August, voted against the measure.
“It’s their prerogative,” Condos said. “They’re the ones who make the policy. I can only make recommendations. The Department of Justice strongly recommended that we move it, and we tried.”
Condos says he will take his case to the House if he can’t change the date before third reading in the Senate.
Last fall, the Secretary of State’s Office had just three days to prepare ballots for Vermonters who are serving in the military or live overseas. The short time frame was the result of a contested recount of write-in ballots for two candidates — Martha Abbott and Annette Smith — both of whom were bit players in last year’s gubernatorial race. A small percentage of absentee ballots sent overseas were not issued by the federal deadline.
The Secretary says Vermont could face a court-ordered primary date change if the Department of Justice decides that the state has not allowed enough time for the dispersal of overseas ballots between the primary and General Election. Last fall, the department sued the secretary’s office over several hundred ballots that were delivered late. The case was resolved very quickly, but Condos says concerns remain about meeting deadlines in future elections. New York state, he said, was forced to move its primary to June as a result of difficulty meeting federal deadlines in 2010 and 2012.
But senators had no interest in cutting Condos any slack in the next election cycle. If anything, several said, they’d rather move it back to a post-Labor Day date. (The primary schedule was advanced in 2010.) They argued over the course of a two-hour debate that moving the primary up again would depress turnout because it would occur in the middle of the school summer vacation. In addition, they were unhappy with the petition deadlines which would have fallen before the end of the legislative session, in early May. This state of affairs, they said, could have an impact on the crucial final weeks of the session when many lawmakers would feel ambivalent about launching campaigns and could prevent challengers, as a result of ambiguity about who is running, from filing petitions.
Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, argued against the primary date change. As Vermont increasingly becomes a “one-party” state, he said, the primary election is becoming the “most important” election and it should be held when there is an opportunity for better participation from the electorate, i.e., after the summer vacation season.
“If I was Secretary of State I would want as much time as possible,” Galbraith said. “But it’s in the interest of Vermonters and the General Assembly to have the largest possible participation.”
S.86 also requires town clerks to submit unofficial election results to the Secretary of State’s Office immediately after ballots have been tabulated by phone or fax. This move would enable the office to more quickly generate tallies; in the last election, Condos was frustrated by his inability to get real-time results from municipalities.
New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts all hold primaries after Labor Day, and senators questioned how Vermonts New England neighbors, which have larger populations, maintain later primaries. Condos speculated that the three states separate national ballot counts from local counts, and said he’d look into it.
The legislation does not address lobbyist disclosure rules; White told her fellow lawmakers her committee would take up the issue next year.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.